The show must go on: Even as COVID-19 inflicts a new, jolting reality on business operations worldwide, this has become the new charge for COOs and CIOs everywhere. In my conversations over the past few weeks with manufacturing clients, I have learned a lot about how businesses are coping with the sudden onset of change and how – as these new practices are followed, enhanced, and supported – they could end up accelerating enterprise modernisation in the long run.

Over and above the business continuity actions which most companies have already executed, such as enabling remote working and ensuring all the correct licences are in place, here are some things organisations should bear in mind:

Ensuring the safety of the onsite workforce

As initial quarantines are eased and lifted, companies need to decide how to safely and smartly re-integrate workers into the field who are not capable of working from home but can return to work. Just because people are allowed to leave their homes does not mean rigorous physical and educational measures are not still needed.

  • Safety protocols: New standard operating procedures must be agreed upon by leadership, such as a minimum distance standard, handshake policies, handwashing requirements, fever scans, and mandatory equipment requirements.
  • Communication and implementation: The logistics of safety implementation now come into play: Who will conduct fever scans, will safety equipment be provided, how will procedures be communicated to employees, and do companies need to document acknowledgment and agreement of the new procedures for legal purposes?
  • Mitigate risk and inefficiency: Once new operating procedures are in place it is wise to field-test re-entry to on-site operations in shifts. This mitigates the risk of negatively impacting a large part of the workforce and allows for realistic means of access. Just like bottlenecked traffic in rush hour due to lane closure, individually screening each worker for fever and safety compliance could keep the majority of workers waiting in line for hours just to begin work if all employees return at once.

Different approaches will work for different organisations; companies may decide to bring in one-quarter of workers one week at time, trade off every other day, or work in three-day stints.

What next: long-term impacts

Just as we have emerged from previous epidemics with positive outcomes, we also expect to see some positive long-term impacts from COVID-19, particularly in the form of business modernisation and the environment:

  • The ultimate test (and advancement) of cloud and IoT (Internet of Things) readiness: COVID-19 has made it painfully clear to enterprises which cloud capabilities they do and do not have. As companies see the value and necessity of the cloud (as well as the capability to move quickly when forced), they will begin fast-tracking initiatives that have been on hold or in unscaled pilots. Many will realise the value of not staffing a data centre and will accept that leading mega-platform providers deliver levels of security that are typically better than on-premises solutions.

Beyond cloud, we will also see advancements in how IoT and augmented/virtual reality better enable the non-remote workforce. Smart factories and offices will increase, allowing critical functions that currently need to be overseen in person to be monitored remotely or, at a minimum, by fewer people.

  • Reduced emissions. As businesses become more technologically intensive, the practice of working from home will become the norm. This will result in a sizable decrease in daily commuters. I expect to see studies estimating the volume of emissions avoided in major cities during the weeks of quarantine, and how that could extrapolate over time if (and likely, when) workers continue to work from home.
  • Innovation across the board. Changes in consumer behaviour lead to innovations, and the vast change in consumer behaviour brought on by COVID-19 – especially the need to reduce human contact – will undoubtedly lead to more automation and virtualisation. Virtual power plants will become more important than ever as millions begin working from home, spiking electricity usage during hours that would typically be considered “off-peak”. 5G, which is already forecast by GSMA to support 48 per cent of connections in the U.S. by 2025, will accelerate even faster to support the mobile workforce and better power IoT connections.

As 5G and IoT advance as one, the possibilities for edge computing will rise exponentially. According to an IDC FutureScape 2020 prediction, 70 per cent of enterprises will run varying levels of data processing at the IoT edge by 2023. In tandem, organisations will spend over $16 billion on IoT edge infrastructure in that time. While use cases vary, there will be instances, such as plant operations, where IoT devices on the factory floor will need to communicate with one another and be in a position to collect, analyse, and act on data acquired from a variety of other sources as well. Doing so will require the type of low-latency, high-reliability network that 5G delivers. This will not only improve industrial processes but will also give rise to industry-specific implementations such as in healthcare.

By taking the appropriate actions, enterprises and society at large will walk away from the coronavirus crisis stronger than before. Organisations can emerge more nimble, innovative, and better prepared to solve whatever life throws our way tomorrow.